Benefits, problems of alternative energy projects described
By TIM HEARDEN
YREKA, Calif. -- When it comes to developing alternative energy sources such as woody biomass, producers and communities should focus on proven technologies that are in use today, an expert advises.
Many factors help determine whether a biomass project can be successful, such as the types of materials used and the expense of getting those materials out of the forest, said Gareth Mayhead, the University of California-Berkeley's academic coordinator for forest products.
Communities often use woody biomass processing plants to leverage an existing industry, such as mills that work with such materials on a daily basis, he said.
The "sweet spot," he said, is to build small-to-medium sized facilities that are less risky from an investment standpoint and less controversial in the community's view, Mayhead said.
And communities should cast a wary eye on technology salespeople who make claims that don't always materialize, he said.
"Just because they say they can do it doesn't mean they can," Mayhead told about 60 people at a seminar on woody biomass utilization here.
"This biomass utilization thing is not a panacea," he warned. "It's not going to pay to treat millions of acres of forest."
Communities should identify markets for output products, consider how they will move the energy from the forest to the power grid and be aware that some technologies use more energy than they produce, he said. Financing is also a big issue for project development, he said.
Mayhead was one of several experts who spoke at the Oct. 21 workshop hosted by the Siskiyou Biomass Utilization Group, which formed two years ago to develop projects locally.
Making use of wood waste can reduce fire hazards in the forest and power local facilities, said group member Bruce Courtright, who recently addressed a hearing on biomass in Washington, D.C.
Biomass materials can be walnut shells or other agricultural waste, Mayhead said. That's something for forest communities to keep in mind when developing projects, he said.
"Generally, moving resources from the forest is expensive so you've got to look at the competition," he said.
In the U.S., biomass power plants range in output from 5 megawatts to 110 megawatts, Mayhead said. The average output for plants in California is about 20 megawatts, which can power between 15,000 and 20,000 homes, he said.
These plants, which generally handle biomass from within a 50-mile area, cost between $60 million and $80 million to build. Advanced technologies like gasification are more expensive, he said.
A wild card could be the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new greenhouse gas regulations which would require emissions permits for woody biomass producers, which up to now have been considered renewable and carbon neutral.
"The future of biomass power plants very much depends on what the federal government decides it likes and doesn't like," Mayhead said. "Really it comes down to a societal question" of whether it's better to burn wood waste in a power plant or to let it fuel massive forest fires, he said.
University of California woody biomass utilization Web site: http://groups.ucanr.org/WoodyBiomass